The anti-vaccination movement received a shot in the arm last month when a study out of the Yale School of Medicine drew a link between specific mental disorders and vaccines. The research generated significant attention immediately. It’s already the most viewed article in the history of Frontiers in Psychiatry, the journal in which it’s published (in just over a month, it has 30,000 more views than the previous highest, a 2013 review of the effect of yoga on the brain). The headline in the News blared: “Vaccines linked to mental disorders by Yale study.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the champion of the anti-vaccine movement for our medically ignorant federal administration, has touted the study as “well-designed” and “tightly controlled.”
Unfortunately, this research is just the latest example of misleading and actively harmful science.
This so-called “well-designed” study reports that patients with specific neuropsychatric disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa and chronic motor tic disorder were more likely to have received vaccinations in the three months before their diagnoses than the control group. These findings were supposedly enough to title the study: “Temporal Association of Certain Neuropsychiatric Disorders Following Vaccinations of Children and Adolescents” – or, in lay man’s terms, “The Diagnosis of Some Mental Diseases is Correlated with Vaccinations.”
There are so many issues here that it’s difficult to know where to start. Perhaps we can begin with the authors’ own admissions, detailed in the conclusion of the study, that the findings “do not prove a causal role of antecedent infections or vaccinations” in the development of the disorders. The authors admit the findings are of “modest magnitude” and they “encourage families to maintain vaccination schedules according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”
Nonacademic readers won’t make it all the way to the conclusion of the study, however. They’ll see the title and draw assumptions of their own.
Why does a biological study that has absolutely zero clinical application have any place in mainstream medical literature? Why do the authors feel justified titling the study so provocatively when they themselves admit there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions? Didn’t we learn the difference between correlations and causations in fifth grade?
The authors openly avoid any semblance of ethics when discussing one of the most hot-button medical issues in the country right now. Despite irrefutable evidence that there is no relationship between vaccines and autism, Trump and friends continue to parrot the findings of a misrepresentative, limited and disproven study from 1998 that kicked off the vaccine uproar. Of note, study author Andrew Wakefield misrepresented the medical histories of all 12 patients involved and has since been stripped of his medical license. The anti-vaccine movement has led us to the brink of a potential medical crisis: Already, in nine states, less than two-thirds of babies have received a seven-part vaccination that protects against diseases including diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and measles. The majority of parents — misled by work like Wakefield’s — delay or refuse vaccines out of the unsubstantiated fear that their children could have serious side effects.
The Yale study feeds further into that narrative. Its methods are as flawed as its ethics. The researchers only looked at parents covered by private insurance who took their children to a physician. This is a common confounder in autism epidemiological studies. Parents who get vaccinations for their children are more likely to take their kids to the doctor more often. This leads to more frequent screenings and more vigilant medical care, which correlates to a higher prevalence of diagnosed mental disorders in children. It’s not that vaccines lead to disorders; it’s that going to the doctor to get a vaccine leads to better treatment over all. This might explain why, in the study, broken bones and open wounds are also positively correlated with vaccination. Yeah, you read that right. The study actually claims a trend between an immune system booster and a fractured pinky toe. Watertight science, right?
Let’s be clear: Vaccination is the most effective method of preventing infectious disease. Measles still kills 100,000 children a year internationally. We’re lucky to live in a country that has virtually eliminated the risk of such a lethal disease. Yet “science” of this nature — studies that actively undermine our public health system without making any legitimate physiological claims — are terrifying and destructive. We cannot allow researchers to bend to the whims of politics and view counts. There’s too much at stake.
Mrinal Kumar is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .